SPECIAL REPORT: Ontario on course for a greener future

Posted: 7 October 2009

Author: John Rowley

Canada does not have a brilliant reputation in the fight against climate change. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on record as a climate sceptic before he came to power. And only last month, Joseph Hansen, a scientist famous for blowing the whistle on the climate problem, said there were few countries that have done more to undermine international efforts to fight climate change in recent years, than Canada. Yet, as I discovered on a visit to Ontario, this vast province, often referred to as the economic engine of the country, is seriously committed to phasing out all coal-fired electricity generation within five years and to becoming North America's leading green jurisdiction.

The inspiration for this ambitious plan comes, it seems, from the province's premier, Dalton McGuinty, the 54-year-old leader of the Liberal Party that swept to power in the 2003 landslide election, and the first political leader in Canada's history to have a biology degree (as well as a law one). McGuinty campaigned for the environment in parliament before becoming premier, and has since pursued a clear policy vision, based on the need to take climate change seriously - and to gain the economic and employment benefits for Ontario of developing a green economy.

Sandra Pupatello
Sandra Pupatello
Sandra Pupatello.
In this he has support from Sandra Pupatello, an energetic 47-year-old Minister who took over the enlarged portfolio of Economic Development and International Trade in June this year, having previously served in various ministerial posts. Talking to journalists in India, in September, she said that by 2014, coal - which now makes up 10 per cent of energy generation in Ontario - would be closed down completely by that date with hydro providing 30 per cent of electricity, renewables 20 per cent and nuclear energy 50 per cent. Ontario Power Generation has already announced that it will close four coal-fuelled power stations in 2010 - four years ahead of the target date.

Her Indian mission was part of a sustained effort to encourage inward investment from around the world in green and clean technology - and to export green technology once it has been developed on a commercial scale. The premier's 'clean tech mission' to India will follow later this year, taking with him business leaders from 30 Canadian companies.

Green Energy Act

Back in Toronto, and speaking to an international group of journalists, Pupatello said of the 2014 target: "This is really important because that sets a goal that we absolutely have to meet because our industrial requirement for energy means that we have to have enough energy. So we have to change the mix of our energy."

Toronto wavy walkway
Toronto wavy walkway
Much of Toronto's waterfront remains a jumble of industrial buildings, abandoned workings and derelict mudflats. Some other parts have been turned into parks and marinas, and given a fresh face, like this wavy walkway. But for the next 25 years work will go ahead on a massive redevelopment project - the largest in North America, and one of the largest waterfront upgrades in the world - that is intended to transform the city's blue edge, with an emphasis on design excellence and quality of life. Covering 800 hectares, or some 2000 acres, it will involve the investment of some 34 billion Canadian dollars, and seed capital of 1.5 billion. When completed it will provide homes for 40,000 people as well as over 4 bn dollars in new infrastructure.
To help do this Ontario has passed a Green Energy Act with strong incentives for industry and individuals to switch to renewable energy with open access to the electricity grid for those with surplus power to sell at a highly profitable rate. "This is an opportunity to do what others have done, like 'feed in tariffs'," says Pupatello. "It also gives us the chance to get over some of the failures which have taken some jurisdictions a long, long time to bring green energy to the table - like creating the right to access." Tom Rand, who leads an advisory service for companies wishing to develop a stake in clean technology, at the non-profit MaRS headquarters in downtown Toronto, agrees on the importance of this 'right to connect'. That and the competitive pricing for green energy of around 20 Canadian cents per unit compared to the standard charge of 9 cents will be the key to success, he says.

Pupatello adds: "We are fortunate in having a publicly dominant power transmission system in Ontario. So we really are in a position to line up a good policy for developing green energy, with a premium rate for solar, wind, biogas and biomass. We are fortunate too to have in Ontario significant places for the best wind and solar developments - with the agricultural and forestry resources to provide the perfect biomass feedstock." Over the next three years Ontario plans to spend some Cn$2.3 billion on power transmission projects that are expected to create about 20,000 jobs. Many of these projects will bring power from the far north where wind and biomass energy potential is most promising.

Deep Lake Water cooling system
Deep Lake Water cooling system
A view of the Enwave Corporation's Deep Lake Water cooling system, which distributes steam and chilled water to over 140 buildings through a 40km underground pipe network which covers most of the city's downtown centre. The water from the bottom of Lake Ontario comes into this building at 4 degrees Celsius, but can be heated by heat exchangers, shown here, using warm water that has already circulated through the city.
Along with this energy strategy Pupatello outlined some of the other steps the government is taking to spur the green transition, with a special emphasis on clean water and waste projects. These include new wastewater treatment systems to remove grease, oil and solids before wastewater enters the sewer, anaerobic digester systems for organic waste (that could generate energy and fertiliser) and new techniques to descale, maintain and remotely monitor cooling towers. Canada, she points out, contains 62 per cent of the world's fresh water supply, most of it in Ontario. One remarkable scheme takes water from the deepest part of Lake Ontario and uses it, via heat exchangers, to heat and cool many of Toronto's largest buildings. "Water is either the first or second most important issue for the world" she says, "and we would like to share information on what we have done."

Among specific green projects is a loan scheme for 'leading edge' enterprises costing Cn$500 million. Alongside this is an emerging technologies fund to co-invest in venture capital projects and assist private investors. Yet another programme will encourage research and development in green technologies through 'unrivalled tax credits', which can pay back up to Cn$60 for every Cn$100 invested in R & D.

Plug-in electric cars

Ontario also plans to become a world leader in building and driving electric cars - with the aim of having one out of every 20 vehicles electrically powered in Ontario by 2020. Toyota is already involved in this, and a number of leading manufacturers are eying with interest the development of a lithium battery-powered car, developed by an Indian entrepreneur whose company is developing a unique battery power unit that creates no waste in production, emits no pollution in operation and can be recycled after use (see below). To spur on the market, buyers of plug-in hybrid and battery cars will receive a rebate of between Cn$4000 and Cn$10,000.

Maya electric car
Maya electric car
Sankar Das Gupta, CEO of the Electrovaya Company in Toronto, in one of the cars being developed as an electrically driven vehicle by his sister company Maya. The firm's lithium battery system claims to be unique in that the manufacturing process produces zero emissions. It is also very light and fits into a very small battery case, helping to overcome one of the chief drawbacks of electric cars - the sheer volume of the battery systems. Indeed the apparent simplicity of the battery, made up of folded sheets of what looks like brown paper, is astonishing. Das Gupta says the most basic saloon car, of the sort shown here, will come on the market in 2010 and sell for around 25,000 Canadian dollars. As petrol prices rise such cars, he believes, will become increasingly competitive, spurred on in the United States by President Obama's target of one million electric cars by 2014.
The Ontario government is also keen to promote green building, with an initial investment of Cn$100 million to retrofit existing buildings. The plans include a state-of-the-art green office tower in downtown Toronto with over 450,000 sq ft of office space. Ontario's 85 school boards will be helped to provide green school buildings, both for their efficient functional value and as part of a larger educational effort to develop a conservation consciousness among the coming generation. The 'green schools' programme will make available 'millions of dollars', said Pupatello, including 'a truly green school' in Toronto, named after Canada's leading environmentalist, David Suzuki. (Ontario already has the highest proportion of secondary school leavers going on to college, university or trade courses, among all the OECD countries - around 62 per cent.)

In Toronto itself there are ambitious plans to green and redesign the city's waterfront over the next 20 years, with large parks, walkways, end leisure facilities. This will complement the restoration and revival of the old distillery district into a pedestrian centre for the arts and entertainment and the creation in the city's abandoned brick works of an evergreen garden centre, farmers market and children's conservation education centre, along with an outward bound headquarters that will increase the leisure use of 26 acres of ravine walks and woodlands.

Toronto's distillery district
Toronto's distillery district
The distillery founded in 1832 grew to become the largest in the world, with brick-lined streets and over 40 Victorian buildings. Work on the derelict site was begun in 2001 and it has now been transformed into a 13-acre pedestrian centre for crafts, culture and entertainment, in the style of London's Covent Garden.
Underpinning all the efforts for 'clean growth' is the rather clumsily named Ontario Centre for Environmental Technology Advancement (OCETA), one of three such Canadian centres. Operating at arms length from the government OCETA aims to promote sustainable development by working mainly with small and medium sized firms to develop and market their own 'proprietary technology'. This means, in effect, to help them build on and commercialise new clean and green products and systems that can help develop sustainable industries at home and be exported abroad.

A recent report on OCETA's work gives examples of 10 of Ontario's clean technology firms, ranging from energy management and lighting control companies to those which process and reduce wastewater and materials. It calls for an extra billion dollars to be raised in equity capital over the next 2-4 years to increase Ontario's competitive edge in the face of the entrepreneurial challenge from across the border and globally.

Alberta's oil sands

Faced with this positive picture from Ontario I asked Sandra Pupatello how this squares with the efforts now going on to develop Alberta's oil sands, with reportedly disastrous environmental impact on huge swathes of that province, pollution of its lakes and groundwater, massive uses of energy and enormous emissions of CO2, that already dwarf those of entire European countries and could exceed all the CO2 emitted by the world's volcanoes by 2020 if the pace of development continues. Was there anything Ontario can do about that?

Her not entirely convincing response was: "We like to think that we do!" She points out that Ontario is, in effect, part of a federation of states, which are acting together to do what they can to limit the environmental impact of tar sands development. Alberta itself, she says, is spending millions of dollars on research into the issue. Ontario, she adds, has a great stake in what they are doing in Alberta. "It generates about half our wealth. We make up 40 per cent of their market share and much of the $100 billion that Alberta Oil and Gas spends in manufacturing for oil sands. Where they don't have the capacity, we do it here. We are helping to solve their problems and have helped set up a fund with other states for collective solutions of the CO2 problem."

With so much of Ontario's economic prosperity at stake, it is difficult to expect a different answer. And within its own borders it does seem that Ontario is pursuing a progressive course, not least for sound far-sighted economic reasons. Ontario is, after all a fast growing highly industrialised province with a rapidly growing immigrant population, which adds around a quarter of a million new inhabitants each year - half of them swelling the population of Toronto.

Pupatello sums up as follows: "In the face of the worldwide climate change agenda we want to show that Ontario, the economic engine of Canada, with its green policy can actually step up to the plate and say 'if Ontario can do it then any jurisdiction in North America can do this'. Its a brave claim which leaves open the question: is the Federal Government listening?

Related link:

Canada's oilsands outpace carbon emissions of European countries

John Rowley is founder and Editor of www.peopleandplanet.net, published by the UK charity Planet 21.